e-Cigarette Explosion: Extended e-Cigarette News Coverage
You may have noticed the media has been dominated by the story of the terrible e-cigarette explosion that occurred in Nicely, FL Monday. Since the story broke Tuesday on a local TV station, it has been picked up by the wire services, and therefore pretty likely you've seen the story in your own local media.
A Pensacola TV station provided an updated story Thursday night. The victim has been sent home from the burn unit. The story also noted the the US Consumer Product Safety Commission has contacted the Nicely fire department for more information.
Few additional details have emerged from the traditional media. Most are just repeating the story, some are sensationalizing it (I'm looking at you Daily Mail), but few sources are adding any germinal information.
A few of the reports include quotes from the co-founder at the TVECA. Their response also did little to shed light on what to make of the incident.
Thomas Kiklas, co-founder of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, said the industry knows of no problems with the cigarettes or batteries exploding.
Kicklas said the cigarettes include a small battery and cartridge. The battery is designed to generate an electric charge when the device is inhaled. The charge sets off the vapor in the cigarette tube.
Kiklas cited a federal report that found 2.5 million Americans used electronic cigarettes last year.
“There have been billions and billions of puffs on the cigarettes and we have not heard of this happening before,” he said.
e-Cigarette Community Reacts
Naturally, the online e-cigarette communities are also abuzz over the e-cigarette explosion. Much of what's going on is speculation as to what could have caused the incident. One post on the Electronic Cigarette Forum (ECF) has more information on the incident. One poster contacted the Nicely fire department for additional information.
Keep in mind, this is basically unconfirmed information from a message board, but the information sheds some light on the situation. Below is the information found on post 72 of this message board thread.
I just spoke to the Chief at North Bay Fire District in Niceville. The incident happened 2/13/12. The battery that failed was unrecognizable but they found several 3.0v (Cr123a) lithium ion batteries and a recharger so it strongly appears the man was using a MOD. For new people: Usually a tube like a flashlight that holds 2 of these batteries to create a more powerful ecigarette. ECF has been very vocal on the dangers of MODs using cheap, unprotected batteries or the incorrect load (rating) for the atomizer attached to it, etc.. These MODs are very common but this shows how dangerous they can be. Be careful people!
Hope Tom recovers quickly.
Based on the above information, some things can be inferred. Please keep in mind, the above quote is not confirmed, and what I’m about to write is speculation and opinion on my part.
e-Cigarette Battery Safety
Because the batteries found were removable and 3 volt, it’s very likely the victim was using a mod. Further, the most common use for 3v batteries is to run them “stacked” for 6 volt vaping. This is a fairly common practice where 2 3v batteries are put together in a mod (usually a tube mod built to house a large 3.7v battery).
Before diving in any further, it's also important to note what else we don't know. First, assuming the above information and assumptions are correct, we don't know what specific device the person was using. We also don't know the specific model of batteries (CR123 is a size, not a model).
The practice of stacking batteries is somewhat controversial. Some vendors are adamant about users not stacking batteries in their devices.
The chances of a catastrophic battery failure increase when multiple batteries are involved. Beyond the fact two batteries naturally double the odds of one battery failing, other risks like one of the batteries rapidly discharging into the second causing it to overcharge are possible.
Most potential battery failures can be avoided with protected or safe chemistry batteries. These batteries either feature electronics that cut power when it senses a fault, or are designed with a safer chemical composition than traditional lithium batteries.
Battery failures can happen even with single batteries. There have also been other consumer electronics such as phones and laptops where lithium batteries failed leading to fires.
I urge you to brush up on the finer details of battery safety. This article from the ECF is a good start. If anyone knows of good resources for battery safety, please post a link in the comments.
e-Cigarette Mod safety
The second part of the equation is the actual device that was used. The big question is what if any safety features were built into the device.
Back to the batteries for a second. In case you didn't brush up on battery safety yet. What happens with lithium batteries when they fail is they batteries quickly vent off a gas. Now in an open space, this isn't a huge problem, the gas has somewhere to go.
Put the same battery in a sealed tube mod, and the gas has nowhere to dissipate. What you essentially have is a pipe bomb. The weakest part of that mod will eventually rupture. This could likely result in an explosion.
If you're unfamiliar with e-cigarette mods, I have an e-cig 101 article explaining the subject in more detail.
Most modern mods take this into account and have some method to allow gas to escape. Most use a hole at the base of the e-cigarette. This allows gas to escape away from the user's face.
Some of the more advanced e-cigarettes, like the ProVari and Lavatube feature circuitry that cuts power to the device when it detects unsafe conditions as well. In these cases, a fault should be detected before the e-cigarette battery fails and vents gas.
Safety features like vent holes are relatively new innovations. One possible theory is that the victim had an older device built before vents were commonplace in e-cigarette mods. The victim is a 2 year vaping veteran and mods can last for a long time, so it's entirely possible.
The reality of the situation is this. Major media outlets are unlikely to talk about the technical details of the e-cigarette accident. To be honest, I can understand that. Mainstream news audiences aren't really going to care about the specifics of lithium battery safety (even though stuff they use all the time is just as likely to fail).
No, we won't know all the details unless the victim steps forward and spells out exactly what e-cigarette and batteries he was using exactly.
What we are left with then is a very sad cautionary tale about the safety of e-cigarettes. It is important for everyone to understand the risks. It's doubly important to make sure you understand proper safety and usage techniques to decrease the risk of catastrophic failure.
I'd love to say e-cigarettes are perfectly safe, but nothing is perfectly safe.
The other thing I would like to discuss is the reaction to all the media attention. Many people would have liked to see this going away. I too would rather not have such a sensational story pop up while we are fighting so many political battles to keep our e-cigarettes available.
However, burying something like this is not the answer. This was a very real incident which sent someone to the hospital with severe injuries. This needs to be talked about.
Our industry has always been a sort of wild west. The closest thing we have to an industry group as seen by the media kind of took the denial approach. The group even issued a press release attempting to distance themselves from e-cigarette mods. I disagree.
This is a serious thing, and it needs to be discussed in the open. We as users of e-cigarettes have a right to know all the facts to make sound judgements. Manufacturers need to know the facts so they can improve their e-cigarettes. We need to know that manufacturers are making those changes.
If we sweep everything under the rug, that important exchange of information won't take place.
Update: The ECF posted a really good summary of all known catastrophic failures along with causes and battery safety information written in easily understandable language. Read it here.
Taking Advantage of the Situation
Prohibitionists have already begun to capitalize on the unfortunate events in Florida to cast doubt on e-cigarettes. An article in ABC news is a high-profile example. The article starts by covering the accident and then giving the podium over to the FDA along with other anti-harm reduction proponents.
“First, we have no idea of what specific chemicals are contained in these products or the safety of components of e-cigs, including the batteries,” said Jay.
There is some data that has suggested using e-cigarettes will make “real” smoking more appealing to youth.
Sure, why not just toss in “for the kiddies” just as good measure? It's a shame an orginization as large as ABC rather than using its considerable journalistic capabilities chose to take this approach. Another option might have been to try to look into the actual root cause of the incident so people might be able to better protect themselves. The International Business Times posted a shorter but similarly slanted article.